18 May 2017: Departures, Reunions, Returns


Back to Rome, Back Home

Yesterday a friend in Rome asked me if I was ready to return to New York. Leaving here is a part of the experience of coming here, I told him, so in that sense I am ready. In a thousand other senses, of course, I am not. 

I left Lampedusa early Monday morning. There were a lot of goodbyes but no tears because I knew I would be back. I am a foreigner there still, the ragazza americana who is known across town as the one from New York always wearing a baseball cap. Two young girls were whispering in my direction at a restaurant a few weeks ago. I approached them asking for a WiFi passcode, because you never know when you’ll be back on a network again once you walk out of a zone––and they asked me if I was the one from New York. I told them yes and asked, “Am I famous?” 

My new friend Gianbattista talks to me fast. He’s a firefighter and seems to have a different idea of time than most people on the island. It’s easy to sit at a cafe for hours there, carrying on with whomever enters or leaves. Gianbattista exits conversations at efficient moments, and seems to always have a destination. Maybe it’s from this urgency of his character that his speech was easier to understand. He never slowed down on my behalf when he spoke, and it was one of the first times in Italian where I was not translating, but listening, and from that, actually understanding. 

Understanding a second language has a lot to do with the confidence of the person you’re speaking to. Direct questions matter, looking at the other person in the eye matters. Gianbattista listened to why I was there and told me it was a pleasure to have someone from so far among them sharing stories. So there you have it, an open door to a community that is not my own, an open door to a new home.

So I left on a flight that I almost missed because Mimmo must have slept through his alarm. Salvatore took me instead and I arrived twenty minutes before the flight departed and just in time for the baggage check-in to be closed. But this is Lampedusa, you know, so no rule is ever absolute and they took my bag anyway. My friend who studied English in the UK is an agent at airport security, so we talked through what was obviously just a perfunctory exercise at this island airport; everyone smiles and says arrivederci when I pass through. There was a hug, too.

I saluted my friend Francesco, the air traffic controller up above, looking down at me from the tower, where he was working the early shift. He snapped a pic of my plane taking off, just as the wheels came off the ground; I took the reverse shot, a picture of the tower whizzing by from my window on the turbo prop. The sun rose and the flight was smooth all the way to Palermo.


. . . . 


I ate my last Sicilian cannolo at the cafe at the Palermo airport, watching Ryan Air jets take off to the east and news about some important football match on TV.

I landed in Naples a few hours later and observed an orderly, well-appointed airport that would come to bear no resemblance to the surrounding city. I need more time in Naples. It is not a place you can figure out in the course of two days. It’s chaotic. The traffic has no beginning nor end. Graffiti is everywhere in a way that makes it difficult to distinguish the “nice” neighborhoods from the ones you ought to avoid. I ate gelato that would have been the best I’d ever had were it not for the exhaust blowing by from the packed corridor of cars. My hair kept blowing into the ice cream. It was hot. I saw a beautiful church completely chained off and left in disuse. It was not an idyllic experience, and of course jarring after Lampedusa’s tranquility.  

Then again, I walked to the pedestrian zone by the sea and saw a view of Vesuvius and my demeanor changed. I texted my friend in Brooklyn who introduced me to the novel My Brilliant Friend and said, “Paging Elena Ferrante!” because the view was really that iconic. My taxi driver from the airport was gruff and shouting swears into his phone in dialect; but then, we talked a bit after he hung up and he morphed into a teddy bear. I thought the metered rate was supposed to be a flat fare from the airport, and feeling bad about the misunderstanding, he suggested I pay him a deeply discounted amount. So that southern Italian hospitality has a bit of presence here too. You wouldn’t know it by looking at the city, but I have a feeling you can be well taken care of in Napoli if you wait for it.

I met Bartholo the next day. He is a migrant from Cameroon who arrived in Lampedusa last December. We walked around the city and saw historical sites, ate lunch, and he told me the omitted details of his trip across the sea from Libya on 3 November 2016 that he was too traumatized to tell me about before. 149 people left on his boat and he was among the only 29 to survive; he watched all of the victims drown. He fished out the plastic rosary he keeps around his neck, the one he received from the church in Lampedusa when he arrived last year. He seemed to need it to finish telling the story. He rubbed the cross between his fingers.

We kept walking and I made jokes and sometimes he laughed. We met a French shop owner and he chatted with him a bit (since he speaks French also) before the man gave him his card. I told him it was a good thing to make friends, because sometimes just talking about nothing with someone you know can make a day bearable if it’s been bad, but I don’t know if he’ll go back. He lives in a camp outside of the city with about 45 others. “It is not easy,” he says again and again. The food is unsavory and the same every day, the rooms are cramped, they don’t have a lot of the promised amenities they’re supposed to receive, like WiFi. Sometimes they don’t receive their full allowance of money for the month, the standard 75 Euros. A lot of the guys, including himself, send that money back to their families in Nigeria or elsewhere. Many travel into the Naples main train station to panhandle to survive.

There are migrants clustered all over areas in the vicinity of the train station. We walked back to Napoli Stazione Centrale after taking an early aperitivo together, and in the space of twenty minutes he ran into two Nigerian friends who he had not seen since Libya. A lot of these guys share time captive in prison or in compounds together, but once they part ways, they never know if the other makes it out alive. So besides my own reunion with Bartholo that day, he was having some of his own.


. . . .


Rome has a different energy, closer to what I know in America. It’s a place with a sense of opportunity. Regardless if that is imagined or real, it is a true vibration in the air and therefore easing. I say this as a cement truck roars by the sidewalk cafe where I write you. But then, there’s a building behind it, beautiful and old. Think marble moldings and pretty arches over the windows, and other things I haven’t the architectural vocabulary to describe to you; an obelisk is adjacent. I spent the day yesterday with a sweet companion that made me feel like here in Rome, too, I was returning to a home. We took a scooter around the city and stumbled upon the keyhole at the orange gardens.

I've had enough visits to Rome that I’ve lost count of them, so the newness first glimpsed of the city as a tourist eight years ago is gone. Instead, it’s been replaced with faces I return to and iconic sites that are still beautiful, but serve as points of reference rather than destination. The men in business suits and ties on scooters don’t look strange anymore, but normal, and even classy in the middle of the rush hour maelstrom. 

Tomorrow I will meet with Pazi again, our friend from The Gambia who I reunited with last month on my visit to his camp outside of the Rome city center. I haven’t shared that story with you yet (more in the coming weeks), but it was troubling enough with the management and military police at the barbed wire gate last time that we’ve decided it is safer for us both if he travels by train to the city instead. We will meet tomorrow in front of the Vatican.

This will be the last newsletter from Italy until I return again. I think that will be sooner than I’m anticipating now, it’s just a matter of following the feeling and not fretting over logistics. 

It seems urgent now to keep moving from a place of caring, to keep doing things of significance that are driven by compassion and joy. I don’t have a plan, just that gut feeling. 

But we can think of it another way too. 

If Italy and Europe are managing this migrant crisis without any real plan, and with policy-makers who are helping to shape it as a business more than the human rights crisis that it is, then the rest of us, including myself, can walk into the unknown too. We’ll be one better because we will be guided by truth and virtue. I think it’s possible. It is up to us.